Australia deepens Defence agreements with US and UK, and outlines plan to buy nuclear-powered submarines.
By Andrew McLaughlin & Max Blenkin
The Australian, US, and UK governments have jointly announced the formation of a closer trilateral military relationship, and that Australia will look to buy a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed attack submarines.
The surprise announcement comes in the face of an ongoing build-up of People’s Liberation Army forces and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region and what is perceived to be a deteriorating geopolitical situation in the region. The decision to adopt nuclear-powered submarines is the first initiative of the formation of a closer trilateral military arrangement between the three nations, dubbed AUKUS.
The announcement comes a day after a short-notice National Security Committee of Cabinet was called in Canberra, to which senior members of the federal opposition were also reportedly invited.
In a joint statement with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Mr Morrison said Australia would now enter into an 18-month consultation period with the UK and US to work out the best way forward on the submarine, which suggests a design upon which to base the new boats is yet to be chosen.
Both the US and UK are building advanced SSNs in the form of the Virginia and Astute classes respectively. The project Task Force will be led by the current Chief of Joint Capabilities, VADM Johnathan Mead.
The PM also said Australia will “exercise nuclear stewardship”, that it “will meet its nuclear non-proliferation obligations”, and that Australia is not seeking to establish a civil nuclear capability.
“As leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order, we resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century,” a joint statement reads. “As part of this effort, we are announcing the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS” — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“Through AUKUS, our governments will strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests, building on our longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties,” it continues. “We will promote deeper information and technology sharing. We will foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”
Mr Morrison said, “Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures. To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.”
During the joint statement, Mr Morrison stressed the formation of AUKUS would not affect Australia’s commitments to its existing international and regional agreements, including ANZUS, ASEAN, the QUAD, and 5 EYES.
A separate joint statement from Mr Morrison, Defence Minister Peter Dutton, and Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne said, “As a three-ocean nation, it is necessary for Australia to have access to the most capable submarine technology available. As a nation, we are ready to take the step to pursue the most advanced submarine technology available to defend Australia and its national interests.”
If delivered, Australia would become the seventh country to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and India.
The announcement of the new submarines comes in the wake of continuing delays and cost blowouts in Australia’s $90 billion Project SEA 1000 Future Submarine program, an issue which has been raised at the highest military and political levels, apparently without a satisfactory resolution. The Attack class submarines are based on a French conventional-powered version of its Suffren class nuclear-powered boats.
Chief of Defence Force GEN Angus Campbell, Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty, Chief of Navy VADM Mike Noonan, Deputy Secretary National Naval Shipbuilding, Tony Dalton, and DFAT’s ambassador for arms control and counter proliferation, Amanda Gauley, gave a media briefing the afternoon after the announcement.
When asked what submarine type would be acquired, Secretary Moriarty said that decision would form part of the 18-month review.
When asked why the ADF had now decided to buy nuclear submarines, GEN Campbell told reporters, “Our strategic environment has deteriorated. What we are seeing, and have been seeing for a little while, is the continuing acceleration of that deterioration. When we look out into the future we only see that being maintained.
“That is one factor,” CDF added. “Another in terms of the question of technologies is the availability of technologies that do not require a civil nuclear power industry to be part of this story. A third is the really commendable work Navy has done and is continuing to sustain, first in the availability and proficiency of the Collins-class submarine and the maintenance of that submarine, and its capacity through its extended life to operate effectively.”
VADM Noonan added that, “The pace of change we are seeing in our region clearly heralds to us that a conventional submarine, no matter how advanced it might be, will be unable to take the full range of required tasks and activities within our region at an acceptably low level of risk. Nuclear-powered submarines have superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and endurance when compared
to conventional submarines.”
Deputy Secretary Dalton said the estimated $2.4bn spent on the Attack class project to date won’t go to waste. “That investment though the design phase has built an experience base, a design base in Australia, in Australians, that will form the foundation of the work that industry will need to carry forward into the next phase.
“That is a key outcome of the Attack program to date,” he added. “Those individuals and the experience they have gained to date is absolutely invaluable to Australia to be able to participate in this program under AUKUS.”
As expected, France has expressed disappointment with the submarine project’s change of course. A joint statement from the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly says, “France takes note of the decision just announced by the Australian government to stop the ‘Future Submarine Program’ ocean-class submarine program and to launch cooperation with the United States on nuclear powered submarines.
“It is a decision contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust as on the development of an industrial and technological base of defense of very high level in Australia.
“The American choice which leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether on our values or on respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, marks an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret.
“The regrettable decision which has just been announced on the FSP program only reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear. There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.”
In a statement to the ABC, Naval Group said, “Naval Group takes note of the decision of the Australian authorities to acquire a fleet of nuclear submarines in collaboration with the United States and the United Kingdom.
“The Commonwealth decided not to proceed with the next phase of the program,” it adds. “This is a major disappointment for Naval Group, which was offering Australia a regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performances. Naval Group was also offering Australia a sovereign submarine capability making unrivalled commitments in terms of technology transfer, jobs, and local content.
“For five years, Naval Group teams, both in France and in Australia, as well as our partners, have given their best and Naval Group has delivered on all its commitments. The analysis of the consequences of this sovereign Australian decision will be conducted with the Commonwealth of Australia in the coming days.”
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of ADBR.